Humor outmuscles danger in Kennedy Center's 'Shadow of a Gunman'

THEATER

December 27, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

'The Shadow of a Gunman'

When: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.;

matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m.

Through Jan. 5.

Where: Terrace Theater, Kennedy Center.

Tickets: $30-$35.

Call: (202) 467-4600. When "The Shadow of a Gunman" debuted in 1923 at Dublin's famed Abbey Theatre against a backdrop of street disturbances, the producers felt compelled to warn audiences that the sound of gunshots and bombs was part of the play. But in the calm confines of Washington's Kennedy Center, the O'Casey Theater Company's respectful rendition is unlikely to elicit fear.

"Gunman" was Sean O'Casey's first produced play -- making it an appropriate choice for the inaugural American tour of the newly formed O'Casey Theater Company. And indeed, the reverence for tradition that characterized that choice also characterizes this production, directed by Shivaun O'Casey, daughter of the playwright and founder of the Northern Ireland-based company, which employs a mixed Irish and American cast.

Though the performances are impressively solid, the overall effect is tame. And, far from accentuating the theme of danger, Ms. O'Casey's direction accentuates the play's humor.

This is particularly evident in Niall Buggy's luminous portrayal of Seumas Shields, a salesman whose gift of gab is somehow never enough to sell his wares or pay his rent. To help with the latter, he shares his quarters with a poet named Donal Davoren.

Donal is a head-in-the-clouds creature who allows things to happen, instead of instigating them. As played by Ian Fitzgibbon, he is more bewildered than charming, though still highly likable.

The action of the play turns on a mistaken notion by Donal's flirtatious upstairs neighbor, Minnie. Michelle Fairley's Minnie is more than just a romantic featherhead, but like everyone else in this Dublin tenement, she's convinced that quiet Donal is a gunman on the run. And, not one to shun the attentions of pretty girl, Donal doesn't deny it. "What danger can there be in being the shadow of a gunman?" he muses with the heart of poet, and a mind oblivious to the dangers outside his door.

Actually, the only thing Donal is running from is the hubbub in this crowded house -- hubbub colorfully conveyed here by a stream of interlopers that includes Risteard Cooper as a hotheaded laborer, and Sean McCarthy and Pauline Flanagan as a drunken bully and his foolish wife.

The most chilling moment in the O'Casey Theater's production isn't the sound of bombs or gunfire, it's seeing Minnie's shadow in the stairway as the Black and Tans lead her away -- defending the cowardly poet she thinks is a hero. And yet, loyal though this production may be to the original, one can't help thinking that its impact is merely a shadow of what it once was.

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